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Thoreau spends many winter evenings alone beside his fire, while the snow whirls violently outside his house. He is able to dig a path to town through the deep snow, but has few visitors to his neck of the woods in this cold season. Alone in the wilderness, Thoreau finds himself compelled to conjure up images of those who had endured the hard Walden winters before him.
Although the route between Concord and Lincoln is sparsely populated, Thoreau believes it had been settled more thickly earlier in the century. Many of the earlier inhabitants had been blacks: Thoreau summons up images of Cato Ingraham, the spinster Zilpha, Brister Freeman and his wife, Fenda. Some of their abodes have almost completely vanished, destroyed by age or fire. Thoreau recalls how Breed’s hut burned to the ground in a fire twelve years before. Thoreau and the local fire brigade had rushed out to save it, but had found it too far gone. Thoreau recalls seeing the heir to the house lying in shock, muttering to himself about the loss of his property. Near Lincoln, a potter named Wyman had once squatted, followed by his descendants. Another memorable recent inhabitant of the woods was an Irishman named Hugh Quoil, formerly a soldier at the Battle of Waterloo, who had come to live at the Wyman place. All these old-timers are now gone, and Thoreau lives alone amid the ravaged foundations and empty cellar holes that once marked their homes. The site of a once burgeoning village is, by Thoreau’s time, marked only by decay, and by grasses and lilacs planted in more prosperous times and outliving their planters. Thoreau muses on the insignificance and transience of humankind’s place in nature.
Thoreau has sparse contact with other humans in the depths of winter, and even animals keep to themselves at times. Among Thoreau’s most reliable companions are the barred owl, an occasional woodchopper, and his friends William Ellery Channing and the philosopher Amos Bronson Alcott. Thoreau’s mentor and benefactor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, also comes. None of these men is directly named in the text, however. Emerson is identified as the “Old Immortal.” Thoreau keeps regular watch for “the Visitor who never comes,” conforming to an ancient Hindu law of hospitality.
Walking over a frozen pond, Thoreau finds everything more open and spacious, with wide yards for sliding and skating on the frozen surface. On these days, the air is filled with the call of the hoot owl and the cry of the goose resounding through the woods. In the morning the red squirrels scuttle and scavenge, at dusk the rabbits come for their feedings, and on moonlit nights the foxes search the snow for prey. Such sounds come and go, but the sounds of snow falling and ice cracking continue through the day and the night. Thoreau places the harvest’s unripe corn at his doorstep, attracting smaller squirrels and rabbits to feed near his dwelling. Sometimes he sits and watches the little creatures paw at their food for hours. At other times they carry their bounty away into the forest, discarding their refuse in various spots. This refuse attracts the jays, chickadees, and sparrows that descend upon the leftover cobs and pick at them. On certain mornings and afternoons, Thoreau hears hounds yelping in pursuit of their quarry. Thoreau often talks with the huntsmen who pass by Walden.
Thoreau’s first task on waking up is to collect water for the day. In the winter this job proves difficult, as he has to chop through the ice. He is soon joined by a hardy group of fisherman. Thoreau is amused by their primitive methods, but is more amazed by what they catch, notably the distinctively colored pickerel, which stands out from the more typically celebrated cod and haddock of the sea.
In an effort to measure the depth of Walden Pond and dispel the myth that it is bottomless, Thoreau uses a fishing line and a light stone. Many locals believe the pond to be bottomless, but Thoreau measures it at just over one hundred feet. Thoreau meditates on the way people wish to believe in a symbol of heaven and infinity. Through repeated soundings, Thoreau is able to get a general sense of the shape of Walden Pond’s bottom, and learns that it conforms to the surrounding terrain. The pond reaches its greatest depth at the point of its greatest length and breadth. Thoreau wonders if this might be a clue to pinpointing the deepest points of larger bodies of water, such as oceans. To test this hypothesis, Thoreau plumbs the nearby White Pond. Again, the point of greatest depth is quite near to the point where the axis of greatest length intersects the axis of greatest breadth. Having more evidence to bolster his theory, Thoreau extends it to a metaphorical level, supposing that a person’s behavior and circumstances will determine the depths of his or her soul.
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